Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Burma's silence must trouble all

An editorial in today's Bangkok Post News reveals how disturbing Burma's secretive leaders' behaviour really is. The bird flu is in Burma, but who knows the extent of it? And, by all accounts, opium and heroin are still the top crops, and production is increasing. Aung San Suu Kyi is still imprisoned in her house. The people still suffer.

But silence remains...
Burma's silence must trouble all
The traditional cliche holds that North Korea is the hermit kingdom, but Burma provides competition for the title. Information about our western neighbour has been as rare as hen's teeth. That is an apt comparison, given that Burma has even been secretive about as important, and as international an issue as avian flu.

Burma's taciturn or non-existent answers cover items as banal as what is the capital city, and as important as an apparent resurgence of opium and heroin trafficking in the country, if not by its military dictators.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar wasn't helping cut through the troubling secrecy when he announced he would finally make the trip to Burma that Asean leaders assigned to him last January. Mr Syed Hamid told one Malaysian newspaper he would be leaving for Burma "soon," meaning in the next nine days. But he would not give the dates, itinerary or expectations of his visit because he wanted to keep out of the glare of media.

Of course, a good politician like Mr Syed Hamid knows that journalists will now give his trip even more attention, which may be his goal. But there is also the chance he is buying into the dangerous and growing isolation of the military regime.

When last seen in public, in roughly the middle of last year, the Burmese junta was bowing to the inevitable, and agreeing to give up its place in the rotation as the 2007 Asean chair. Late last year, the generals ordered a midnight move from Rangoon to the new capital, in remote Pyinmana, as regime-inspired rumours spread that the Americans were going to attack. The country has held another of its sham constitutional conventions, with no progress towards democracy.

There has been no move to free democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, arrested and imprisoned at home without charge or immediate hope for personal freedom. Mr Syed Hamid would not say if he even hopes to meet the Nobel Peace Prize winner, even though his specific warrant from Asean is to assess the progress of democratic reform.

Last week, Burma announced two outbreaks of avian flu near Mandalay, among chickens and quail. A United Nations agricultural team from Bangkok flew to Burma, but health officials remain in the dark. The government mouthpieces which pass as media in Burma were totally silent on the outbreak for three days, which only increased the concern in the minds of consumers and in the poultry markets.

The disregard for their citizens is standard from the generals, but avian flu is a primary security concern around the world. It is no surprise the Burmese junta has no regard for its neighbours, but it remains troubling.

The same holds true for narcotic drugs, which have long been the main export of Burma. The latest UN survey estimated that about 100,000 hectares (around 625,000 rai) are under poppy cultivation. But even that is disputed.

Shan State Army commander Col Yod Suk says many fields have been moved to new areas, and foreigners kept out by the army. The opposition Democratic Voice of Burma radio claims opium now is grown by Naga tribesmen, close to India. Of course opponents have a reason to exaggerate _ but so does the junta. Their New Light of Myanmar newspaper says drug arrests were up again last year, to 4,754 people. Authorities claim to have seized 811kg of heroin and 772kg of opium.

This is not impressive. The 312 tonnes of opium which the UN believes were harvested in 2005 would yield more than 30 tonnes of heroin _ so more than 29 tonnes are unaccounted for, even by the regime's reasoning.

By all accounts, heroin trafficking from Burma has actually increased. Neighbours including Thailand are concerned. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao publicly told his Burmese counterpart to take tougher action against "drugs flooding across the border". Premier Soe Win promised to look into it.

In fact, Burma seems likely to continue as the region's top drug producer and exporter.

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